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Dear GrantDoctor,

I am a minority in the nursing field and have found it difficult at times to climb the ladder. I have recently returned to school to obtain a higher degree in nursing but have been finding it hard to make ends meet. I am a minority because I am a man. I am surrounded by women in this field and it is not always easy to prosper. I am looking for grants to aid my schooling. I have a family and I am the only provider in my family. Can you assist me?

--Lambservant


Dear Lambservant,

Nationwide, the gender imbalance in nursing is more striking than in almost any other field of science: only 6% of registered nurses (RNs) are men.

Today's nursing is a far cry from what nursing used to be. Nursing has always played a crucial role in health care, but today its importance is widely acknowledged. More than 75 universities and medical schools offer Ph.D.s (one of several types of doctoral degrees available to nurses--see sidebar), and in 1985 nursing got its very own NIH institute (the National Institute for Nursing Research, NINR) when Congress overrode Ronald Reagan's veto of the Health Research Extension Act of 1985.

A Sampling of Nursing Ph.D. Programs

Nursing's gender imbalance persists at the highest educational and technical levels. A search of 210 active NINR grant Principal Investigators yielded 183 women, 18 men, and nine scientists of indeterminate gender (many of whom exercised the expedient of obscuring gender by including only a first initial). Furthermore, Dan O'Neal, NINR's public liaison and chief of their Office of Science Policy, points out that many male NINR-grant recipients are not nurses.

Historical developments in nursing would suggest the time is right for increased numbers of men in the profession. Until recently, women who wanted--or needed--to work outside the home had few options beyond teaching, nursing, and housekeeping. And though men may have been excluded from nursing in the past, today they stay away largely--though not entirely--by choice. Discrimination against men may still linger in certain areas of nursing, such as obstetrics, and false stereotypes abound. Nonetheless, male nurses generally report a very high level of job satisfaction.

In many fields of science it is possible to see gender disparity as an abstraction, as an academic problem. Physics, for example, would undoubtedly be better off with more women, but the world has no shortage of physicists. In nursing the situation is different: There is an acute nursing shortage. At some medical centers as many as one in five nursing slots is open. A search of Kaiser Permanente's job opportunities Web site (keyword: nursing) yielded 2557 positions at KP's 29 medical centers (KP is the nation's largest health maintenance nonprofit organization). Illinois (a state chosen at random) lost 10 % of its RN workforce between 1996 and 2000, and fully one-third of Illinois nurses plan to retire in the next 10 years. Meanwhile, the U.S. population is aging, increasing the demand for nursing care. Clearly, the nation can scarcely afford to continue to exclude half the population from the nursing profession.

Largely as a result of the nursing shortage, salaries for nurses are spiraling upward. New nurses with 2-year degrees starting out at Johns Hopkins University Hospitals earn between $42,000 and $45,000. Salaries for executive nurses can exceed $100,000. Though salaries are much lower elsewhere, they are climbing everywhere. Higher salaries will, no doubt, draw new blood into nursing, including men, but so far there's no evidence that men are knocking down the doors.

When the extent of men's underrepresentation in nursing is considered, it is perhaps surprising that few special programs exist for bringing men into the field. A position paper of the American Nurses Association (ANA) notes that the profession is "90% white and female," and then goes on to argue in favor of ethnic diversity, leaving gender unaddressed.

The GrantDoctor (with the assistance of an able colleague) managed to find just one scholarship program giving men an explicit edge (Kaiser Permanente's Deloras Jones RN Scholarship), and it's only available in California. Beyond that, the doctor came up empty. Many nursing schools offer minority scholarships (see sidebar), but typically those programs are reserved for ethnic minorities. NIH's training programs for aspiring minority nurses are reserved for "ethnic and racial" minorities (though they also offer unrestricted training awards for doctoral and postdoctoral nurses).

Financial assistance for nursing students

Just because you can't find a scholarship that gives special preference to men doesn't mean you can't find a scholarship. The sidebar lists several sources of financial aid for nursing students. Your school's financial aid officer should know of any local scholarships you qualify for, including minority scholarships. And ask your former employer: Hospitals often offer support for nurses who want to continue their education--though their support may require you to work for them after you finish school. You may also qualify for scholarships from local churches, hospitals, and service organizations. Fact is, you probably don't need a scholarship intended for men; as a male nurse with work experience you're likely to be very competitive.

So why aren't there more programs aimed at increasing the number of men in nursing? Apparently the dearth of men is not, in itself, considered a problem--at least not by everyone. Some argue that the few men who do enter the profession already get promoted preferentially (though others argue just the opposite). Others feel that, since so many other fields are dominated by men, it's okay to have one professional field that is dominated by women. NINR's O'Neal wrote to me in an e-mail: "Although there are several calls from the field for more men in nursing, as if that will answer some issues which seem to affect the profession, there is not good empirical data which supports a gender-specific recruitment, hiring or promotion for men in nursing."

Best of luck.

--The GrantDoctor